I have some really bad habits-habits like playing certain games for hours on end on Facebook, when I am not working. I do this despite having so many other things that I could be doing. Playing those games is my way of chilling out, and I do a LOT of chilling out. Anyway, I finally got the “bug” to do something besides those games. When we took the cruise to Alaska, I had bought a panel and four corner squares from a quilting store in Skagway with a wolf theme for my son. Now that it sat for over a year, I finally decided to get back to it. I went and bought the coordinating fabrics, a new sewing machine-since mine from 36 years ago finally died, made the design on paper and got to work. I just didn’t want you to think that I totally forgot about the blog for no reason. So here it is, all pieced together. I have since put the layers together and starting to do the actual quilting.
Teri at Princess did a great job of getting us all on a non-stop flight from Las Vegas to Vancouver when we headed up. It was on Air Canada. I have never, ever been on a tighter plane. The boys are 6’4” and 6’6” tall, so they often have trouble getting comfortable on planes. I am 5’10” and even I had my knees shoved into the back of the seat on that plane. I just couldn’t get comfortable, so I opted for as much out of seat time as I could muster using whatever excuses I could.
Coming back was actually much better. We all flew on Alaska Air, and of course we had three different legs to our flight between Fairbanks and Las Vegas. The flight we were catching originated in Barrow, so we had some interesting people working on extended length work shifts up in that area of Alaska that fly in and out between the North Slope and their other homes where their families are. There was definitely more leg room on all of the planes on the flight back.
Leaving from Fairbanks International is very different than flying from Las Vegas International. Fairbanks is so quaint, it only has 6 gates. The only crowd going through the security check were the members of our own group. It is indeed a very quiet, comfortable airport. Once again, everyone was very friendly.
As I mentioned earlier in another post on my blog, I was quite disappointed that I didn’t get more wildlife pictures. Our group ended up all over the planes on the flight back and I am a chatty type person, so I started talking to the young man sitting next to me. He was coming from north of Fairbanks and had plenty of pictures taken from the house he lives in up in Alaska. Those pictures are of all of the animals I wish I had seen: bears, moose, deer. Can you imagine being able to take a shot out your front or back door of a wild animal just feet away? I sure hope that place has improved facilities if you know what I mean.
On the flight between Fairbanks and Anchorage, I glanced out past the person sitting next to the window and had to take some pictures. I am almost certain I caught Mt. McKinley from the plane window. It had to be! Yes, all of the mountains are tall, but only Mt. McKinley is 20,320 feet high. I am so proud of that picture.
As usual, the flight from Seattle to Las Vegas was packed. I occasionally land the opportunity of upgrading on the cheap on a flight headed out of Las Vegas, depending on where it is flying. That never happens on a flight headed into Las Vegas. Those flying to Vegas for fun were starting the party early, while we were headed back to reality. Reality hit us when we got off the plane after 11:00 pm and the temperature was still around 100.
We arrive on the train in Denali, near the entrance to Denali National Park. We head to Denali Princess Lodge. This lodge is also very large, but a little more compact than the last one. It sits on the bend of the Nenana River and right in the little town of Denali. This lodge also screams rustic, some buildings more than others. Built in 1987, it appears this was their first lodge. It has been redone and added to every since. There are four or five different places to eat on property or you can always go across the street to the most expensive Subway we have ever been to. Alright, they have their reasons. There are a few other places to eat in town, but you do have to walk there. We took one evening and our group went over to the Denali Salmon Bake Restaurant which also has custom brews-so everyone was happy! The food was good, the surroundings were fun, and the wait staff was attentive.
So when we arrived at the lodge, we only had time to get into our rooms and some of us were off for another wheeling adventure in the evening. It is called the Stampede Wilderness Adventure and the vehicles are ARGO amphibious ATVs. The group was a little overbooked and one of the amphibious vehicles had broken down. There were three of us in our little group, so we ended up in one of the four wheeled vehicles with a guide on board. Both guides were very gracious and let us do the driving. I’ll admit it, I wimped out and let the boys drive. These pathways they use are used by jeeps, the ARGOs and other ATVs. The tracks are well worn in and full of water. Here we are traversing what look like rivers in places and I am just praying that the machine I am in is not going to stall. The water was deep enough, it would leak in through the floorboards and the doors when we got in too deep, but we never did stall. One of the our guides was a very mature, reliable boy from down the road that works for the company. I admit, it was pretty exciting! No views of McKinley from here though, the weather wouldn’t cooperate and we were now 60 miles north of the mountain.
Back at the lodge, there were computer printed signs on the doors: Caution-moose and calf on property. Do not approach! That was my cue to take a walk and see if I could get close enough to catch a picture. No such luck. So the next morning when I am standing in line for a delicious morning beverage over at the lodge, I am standing behind a Princess employee. I ask, “Were there really a moose and calf on the property?” She replies, “Yes, with the exception of yesterday, we have seen them every day the last week. They got caught on this side of the river when the water rose. There are three actually-the mother, the calf and a young bull moose.” So now I am even more determined to find the moose-but not at the moment. This day is rather rainy, very cloudy, and pretty much normal weather for the area, with just drier skies at times. That evening, our last, I go out with my camera and phone in search of the moose. YES! There they are, only they are back on the other side of the river. Now if I had only taken my camera off of smart setting, I may have been able to zoom in enough to get better pictures. Oh well, at least I got some pictures of them.
Earlier in the day though, I had to find another excursion to go on, while the boys did white water rafting. I had really wanted to see wildlife, but the only way to do that was to take an 8 or 9 hour bus ride into the park. After all of our excursions and not really getting to sleep in, I just couldn’t see myself sitting on a bus for that long. So I caught up with the rest of party and went to the Husky Homestead Tour. I learned so much about dogsledding, and the Iditarod in particular. The musher is Jeff King. It ended up being more fun that I thought it would. When you arrive on the shuttle bus, they hand you a puppy because-they have to be socialized. There were two main litters, one was 25 days old and the others were 11 weeks old. As part of having to be in control of your best dogs for the Iditarod, the litters are born after late spring-early summer. They were so cute! There was lots of joking about taking one home in our purses. All kidding aside, the training is serious, but they do have fun with it. Jeff’s daughters got to name the dogs for awhile, so there are dogs there named after Disney princesses. Then there are those named after expensive perfumes. Finally there are those that Jeff named after 60’s and 70’s music groups-like Crosby, Stills, and Nash. So that pretty much sums up the Denali experience.
All of these last 19 years, we have wanted to take this trip for the train ride. We had done the cruise, but were just drooling over others’ pictures from the train. I think things have evolved from what they once were. Once upon a time, Princess, Carnival, and Holland America each did their own thing to Alaska and did their own land tours. Those land tours used to look very different. Then Carnival bought out Princess and Holland America and a few others. So I am not sure, but I think the train used to do the whole trip one way. Now, you get one of two segments. I am actually pleased that we got the Talkeetna to Denali segment and you will find out why as I talk about it.
The train has two levels-one for dining and one for hanging out and viewing through the panoramic windows that rise almost all the way to the middle of the ceiling. Beverages and little souvenir items are available for purchase and most people arrange for a time to dine downstairs during the trip. I think it was about a three hour trip which followed the edge of the Susitna River for a time, then the eastern edge of Denali National Park and finally caught up with the Nenana River in Denali.
We were lucky to see a moose (with a collar for tracking purposes) out in the meadow. But the most impressionable part of the journey was learning about the Flag Train. The actual name of the train is the Hurricane Turn Train. Now, first you have to know that I didn’t get to spend a lot of time on the internet during the trip, and that was killing me. I do consider myself quite the independent spirit, but I am NOTHING compared to the people living out there in the middle of nowhere. No roads to access where they live, they are truly living off the land and off the grid. I don’t know how they do it-really! They do order things in and they do go shopping occasionally. Here is how that goes. Each place has a pole near the train track with some sort of flag to go up if they want the train to stop. They get on the train, take the train to where they are going, get what they need and then go back home on the train. This is the same single train track with one siding that accommodates the two tourist trains ( one going each way). The flag train runs round trip.
The train trip was everything we expected, even our dining time. There were so many photo opportunities. While our bus driver/guides did an awesome job of telling us stories and history, I know I enjoyed the train the best. Our getting off stop was at Denali for a stay at the Denali Princess Lodge, the next part of our adventure.
From 100 miles away from Mt. McKinley, there was a wonderful view of the mountain, void of most clouds with a lot of sun. This is quite the opportunity up here from a tourist’s point of view. On with the drive to McKinley Princess Lodge, which is located 40 miles south of Mt. McKinley/Denali. This is not a small lodge at all, and it houses the employees as well.
Built in 1997, this relatively new Lodge screams rustic decor with extremely nice amenities. This lodge is truly out in the middle of nowhere. Yet I can’t help feeling that driving on the roads and seeing an occasional driveway, it is not as far out in the middle of nowhere as some places in Nevada. The main lodge has the best view of the mountain and they have even taken the guesswork out of taking pictures of it by putting up an arch with the name of the mountain on it. Just haul out your camera and snap a shot. Princess has all of the luggage orchestrated for you. They deliver it to your room and you put it out so they can pick it up and get it to your next destination. The property is huge, so plan on a lot of walking or wait for the property shuttle that makes the rounds about every 15 minutes during hours. Shuttle buses are scheduled to move you to and from your excursions, or into Talkeetna which is 40 miles away.
The weather really was on our side. There were a few clouds depending on what part of the day you were looking at it, but you could clearly see the 20,320 foot high mountain regardless during our visit. We went ziplining in the evening at Denali Zipline Tours and got some pictures with the mountain in the background. Once again, we had so much daylight, that excursions ran late into the evening and started early in the morning. Midnight felt like eight o’clock in the evening. After ziplining, it was time to find someplace to eat in Talkeetna. We found a little place called the West Rib Pub and Grill and got right in to sit down. To say that the staff if friendly is an understatement. They really make you feel welcome and are very attentive to your needs frequently. Beyond the food menus, there are legal sized information sheets about Mt. McKinley, including the major expeditions, records that were set, the dates and lots more. Reading material while waiting for your food. We sat on the patio under the umbrellas. Then it was time to catch the last shuttle bus back to the lodge. We decided to hang out on the lodge balcony taking pictures until midnight when we got back.
The next morning after our luggage was out, we went to the 20320 Restaurant for a hearty breakfast. Back onto a shuttle bus for some 4 wheeling. Upon arriving, we were immediately dressed in full rubber rain gear from head to toe-well a full helmet on our heads. I wondered what it would really be like driving through the woods. They had definitely had their share of rain in the previous days. While it wasn’t raining on the excursion, there was a need for the rain gear as we took paths with waves of ponded water. Fun was had by all! I was a little disappointed we didn’t see any wildlife. Next, an extremely quick shuttle back to the lodge, to catch the shuttle to the train in Talkeetna. They put up with all of my concerns and the train knew we were arriving close to time to depart. Turns out the train didn’t arrive until we were standing on the platform. You think they do this a lot?
A small side comment here! You know those safety presentations they give you when you get on an airplane. Every time we got on a shuttle, we got a safety presentation-so much so, that I knew the presentation by heart and got to try my hand at it on one of the trips. Everyone is in radio communication, the lodges, the buses, the train, certain other employees. Next up, the long awaited train ride!
Whittier would be the place we got off the ship to start our land part of the trip. Some of the passengers would be boarding buses to head to the airport in Anchorage. Some of the passengers would be boarding the train to head to McKinley Princess Lodge and the rest of us would board buses to head to McKinley Princess Lodge.
The ship arrived dockside at about midnight. I had already been well entertained by the fact that the farther north you get in Alaska, the less darkness there is at night. So we watched the sun set. The sun rises and sets in a small circle to the north, but it never gets dark. In the morning, I was surprised at the size of the town of Whittier. Whittier is a very quaint little town. The one good sized building there, is the only residence in the town. It is where everyone lives and has the police department located within it also. It is only half a block from that building to the school in town. Yet there is a tunnel running underground from the building to the school. Turns out the teachers live in the building as well, as families with their students. Now there are some other sparse buildings there, but not much.
There is a lot of history to this town, which our bus driver enlightened us with during the trip. There is a huge building over to one side of the town. At first glance, the building looks like it has been ignored. It is in fact, abandoned. During World War II, the army built both of the large buildings, as well as a very unique tunnel I will talk about in a minute. Nothing can be done with the abandoned building which has asbestos and would be a nightmare to remediate. The only ways in and out of Whittier are either the port, or the tunnel. On our way out of town, the bus came to a halt at a stoplight. This town is so small, there wouldn’t seem to be a need for a stoplight. But wait-well we did! The army also built the tunnel for the railway while they were located in Whittier. While I haven’t found the proof, our bus driver was telling us about the bunkers located inside the 2.6 mile tunnel. We definitely saw the bunkers as we drove through. Until the 1960’s, it remained a tunnel for the trains alone. Then because of demand, it was decided that a road would be built to the tunnel and it would become a combination rail and highway tunnel. What is really unique about this? It is only a single lane wide, other than where the bunkers are. So we had to wait for the southbound traffic before it was our turn. Remember both directions of vehicle traffic also have to share with trains going through. I have to admit it was a little claustrophobic, as I kept looking for the light at the end of the tunnel. It turns out that they have doors that raise and lower. While our bus driver had never seen this before on his trips, they actually closed the door at the other end. As our bus got closer, the door raised and our adventure continued. I could have sworn the bus driver told us the tunnel was around 7 miles long, and it felt really long, but the only thing I can find says it is 2.6 miles long. The bus drivers has a plethora of stories to tell. This bus driver was telling us about a criminal chase where the driver of the car entered the tunnel headed toward Whittier (that was dumb) and ended up crashing into an oncoming car because it wasn’t his turn to be in the tunnel. The criminal made it easy to get caught.
We continued on the Seward Highway along Turnagain Arm. Turnagain Arm has shown up on the Travel Channel occasionally for the surfers. They don’t have regular waves, but when the tide comes in as Turnagain Arm narrows, the tide becomes one surfable wave for the die hards who can handle the temperature of the water. We continued on through Anchorage and then took a break for lunch at Wasilla. Can you say Sarah Palin? I have to say once again, the mountains, glaciers and scenery between Whittier and Anchorage were absolutely phenomenal.
Our next destination was another one of those where we wouldn’t really stop, but cruise and do a few 360s. College Fjord is a-well fjord, that has a group of glaciers named after ivy league colleges. Why ivy league colleges? I don’t know and I haven’t researched that. I was probably enjoying myself so much that I wasn’t really paying attention to what was being said over the loudspeaker on board ship. This was one of those ideally, sunny days in Alaska and the colors were phenomenal. The boys and I all had our phones and camera moving constantly. I got accused of taking too many pictures of the same two glaciers that merged into one making it look like a Y. Can you ever have too many pictures? The better to weed out the bad ones and keep the better ones.
I went a little crazy with taking pictures of my son also with Harvard Glacier in the background. My son and husband had heard on a different excursion about a 40 day glacier wilderness adventure. My son wants to do that. He no longer enjoys the hot days in Las Vegas, and prefers the cooler weather of Reno. He also is seriously considering taking this glacier wilderness adventure. It sounds dangerous to me, but I will worry every day he is gone, if he chooses to follow through. But I digress from College Fjord. I, well really we could have stayed there much longer and been so happy with the serene surroundings. It was perfect. The greens were so green, the whites were so white, the blues were so blue and the water was so cold. We sat on the fan tail having some of the unlimited adult beverages and took pictures again and again. Then it was time to leave. But the peace in our hearts persisted. I continue to be awestruck by the beauty of Alaska, and it just goes on and on.
Our next stop wasn’t a stop at all, but rather doing a 360 in the water twice. Glacier Bay National Park is about 100 miles at the longest and 50 miles at the widest. There are only so many ships allowed in per day. Near the entrance to the park rangers boarded the ship to be our guides and be available to answer questions. They would be dropped off as we left the park again.
We went to see Lamplugh Glacier. It calved just a little and I was on the wrong side of the ship at the time, so I missed it. You have to picture in your mind, that as we are slowing spinning, the passengers are shifting from one side of the ship to the other competing for the best picture taking spots. Don’t get me wrong-it was a time for socialization too. We started talking to the young lady that was around my son’s age. We found out she had just finished her civil engineering degree and was headed to Texas for her first job. My husband is a civil engineer and my son-still wasn’t interested. Oh well!
There was one of the smaller experience ships there also, with their passengers on land near one end of the glacier and others in kayaks. I caught the most awesome picture of the kayaks, with the glacial silt greenish color coming through. One of the things we each got was a Glacier Bay National Park map. The park still has about 18 glaciers that come down to the water. the map it shows the regression and movement of the glaciers over time. I get so excited about weather and nature. It is so hard to believe that back in the 1680s the glaciers in the park didn’t even exist. Then around 1750 the glaciers did exist and came way out past the current visitor’s center with no access by water. From that date until today, the glaciers have retreated 65 miles. Unbelievable!
Skagway is another place that has changed so much in 19 years, but still has a really small town feel. A few things have changed to accommodate the big ships. They have seriously enlarged their docks and lengthened the railway line if I remember correctly. The dock we were at gave us immediate access to the railway once we got off the ship, if we had an excursion that involved the train tracks. Also the rock cliffs where we got off the ship have signage (graffiti) from crew members from all of the different ships. There is a beautiful park right there too. On my last visit, the town was basically 4 blocks wide by 8 blocks long. I would say it might be a little bigger now. When ships are in port, it grows between 6,000 and 12,000 people. My boys went off to do some more four-wheeling and ziplining. I went off by myself for a couple of excursions.
First I went to the Liarsville Experience to visit a spot where there used to be a camp for those getting ready to climb up to the Trail of ‘98. It also was the base for reporters of that time to do firsthand reporting. Actually they were more inclined to deal in hearsay in a secondhand manner and embellish it-thus the camp became known as Liarsville. Now the group of actors doing the reenactment put their hearts into it. There is a gift shop and we all got to pan for gold. Everyone comes away with 2-3 specs of gold-it is planted in the dirt that you pan with.
Next I headed up the pass by bus and crossed over the border into Canada briefly. The top of the pass is near the Trail of ‘98, where gold miners entered into Canada to get over to the Klondike to strike it rich. So many miners were not surviving in the early days of mining, that Canada instituted a policy of requiring that anyone entering Canada come in with certain provisions. I have heard different versions of the requirements, like 6 months worth, a ton, and there actually was a specific list of what was required. In reality, it was really hard for miners to get all of their things up to the Trail of ‘98 and into Canada, because it often meant multiple trips during which their belongings at the top would get stolen. I love that period of history, but I don’t think I would have done well living it. Since I really, truly enjoy landscapes and the sun started peeking through the clouds just a little bit-I got some awesome pictures. The bus driver was full of information. When I returned to town, I shopped a bit, then headed back to the ship to catch up with the rest of our party.
Juneau seems to really have grown in 19 years time. Part of it could be because last time, we went right from the ship to the sea plane and then straight back to the ship after a stop at the Red Dog Saloon. This time we went farther out for our adventures. The city is definitely much more commercial and looks like a typical cruise port, including the Diamonds International store. My husband, son and I headed off for whale watching first on this trip. On our way out, we came upon a group of sea lions chilling out on a buoy. I learned that sea lions can actually use their appendages to pull themselves up onto things, while seals can’t. We saw probably five humpback whales, so the money back guarantee didn’t apply. I found that my digital camera didn’t respond as quickly as my Samsung, so the camera got put away for action shots. My best recommendation is that when you take a whale watching tour, run your device on video and then extract shots later. My son had the best luck at catching the tails in the air. As part of the whale watching tour, we also went to have a seafood luncheon at Orca Point Lodge. Orca Point Lodge sits on a small island along with a few other houses. The lodge is beautiful, but the weather was not. The wind picked up so much, that walking from the boat to the lodge on the floating dock was challenging. It felt nice to get inside at that point. The lodge has its own gift shop with local items. After wandering around the grounds for a few, it was back to the whale watching boat for the ride back to the mainland.
The next tour the three of us took was to Mendenhall Glacier. It was absolutely breathtaking. It is good that they have so many old photos of the Glacier, because it is really hard to believe how much the glacier has receded over the last 100+ years. The waterfall that people can now hike back to, was totally covered by the glacier years ago. With the overcast skies, and a recently calved chunk of ice from the main glacier sheet, we were lucky to get some pictures with the most beautiful blue color. Of course I am biased. I have always loved mountains, but when you add in glaciers, I could stay there all day. Even when you have other people all around you, there is a certain peace. Everything else just melts away into oblivion.
Since my son was legal drinking age for this trip, we had to stop once again at the Red Dog Saloon. I am sure it is bigger than 19 years ago, and there is also an attached gift store. Last time my husband and I were there, it was the practice to leave your business card. Now it pretty much practice to write or scratch something into the wood railings, tables, etc. My son borrowed a black magic marker and left his frat symbols in the handrail for staircase. This time there was period entertainment. Dressed in oldtime, miner’s clothing and sporting a mustache, beard and the appropriate hat-was a man at the keyboard singing old time songs requiring audience participation. The house was packed, although everyone did have a seat for the most part. It was a good old time and we did stop for souvenirs on the way out. Of course the boys got a souvenir glass as part of their drink order. With that done, we headed back to the ship for the next leg of our journey.